What To Do If You Can't Answer An Interview Question

Remain calm, ask for clarifying information, provide any information you can, explain how you'd learn the answer, and always be honest!

Abi Tyas TunggalAT

Abi Tyas Tunggal

What To Do If You Can't Answer An Interview Question

The thought of being unable to answer a question during a job interview can be scary, but it happens more often than you think.

Sometimes, you don't know the answer to a tough question. In other cases, you may know the answer and freeze up. Interviewers may even deliberately ask tricky questions, like brain teasers, to stump you to reveal how you'll respond to challenging situations.

This article explains what to do when you can't answer an interview question, reviews example answers you can use in this situation, and provides helpful tips to ace the interview process.

Job interview

What to do when you can't answer an interview question

You're not the first candidate to not know the answer to a question. Not knowing the best way to respond to a question isn't going to ruin your chances of getting hired for the position.

However, knowing how to respond to a question where you don't know the answer can help you make the most out of a problematic situation and alleviate anxiety.

Regardless of whether you don't know or you need more time to generate your answer to a specific question, follow these steps:

Job interview preparation

1. Prepare for common interview questions

Your mindset going into the hiring process is a critical ingredient for success. Many candidates assume they need to be near-perfect to land the job. In reality, most other interviewees will also stumble on some questions.

This realization can help you not panic when you don't know the answer to a question. However, you should take the time to prepare answers to common interview questions as employers will expect you to answer those!

Job interview via Zoom

2. Maintain a professional appearance

Your reaction can be as important as your response. When you don't know the answer to a specific question, feeling nervous is normal. The best thing you can do is remain calm and prepare to respond to the hiring manager in the best way you can.

Try not to fall apart and get upset, as it can make the interviewer lose confidence in you. Most hiring managers understand nerves can get the better of you and are understanding, but it's best to stay composed.

Consider saying something like, "That's a good question; can I take some time to consider it and get back to you later?" or "Great question! I can answer part of it, but I'd like to think about it and get back to you."

Take a deep breath, smile, and make appropriate eye contact. If you're doing a video interview, be sure to check out our Zoom interview tips.

Job interview

3. Ask for clarifying information

If you're unsure how to answer a job interview question, it may be because you don't have adequate context or aren't clear on what the hiring manager is asking.

If this situation occurs, ask questions to get clarification. An excellent way to do this is by rephrasing the question. For example, you might say, "Are you looking for an example of how I'm a team player? Or are you more interested in my biggest strengths?"

It's OK to respond to a potential employer by asking them follow-up questions about the answer they want.

Interviewer: "Tell me about yourself."

Candidate: "There's a lot I can say, and I want to make sure I give you the right answer. Would you like to know more about my interests, education, or work experience?"

Related: How to answer "Tell me about yourself."

Job interview

4. Provide any information you can

If a potential employer asks you about a current event or topic you don't fully understand, be honest about your limitations.

When you respond, tell them that you don't have a firm grasp of the topic, but you are interested in learning more about it. Then detail anything you do know about it.

For example, if the hiring manager asks you how the Internet works, you may only have a rough understanding:

Interviewer: "Can you explain how the Internet works to the best of your understanding?"

Candidate: "I only have a cursory understanding of how the Internet works. I know that when you type in a URL into the address bar, it resolves to an IP address, and then that IP address resolves to a physical machine. However, I don't know the specific mechanics of resolving those addresses or the protocols. If this was an important aspect of the job, I know I could learn it, but it's not something I've had exposure to in the past."

Job interview

5. Explain what steps you would take to learn the answer

It's also a great idea to outline how you'd learn the answer. Explaining how you'd learn the answer can be an excellent way to highlight your problem-solving skills and dedication to learning and development. For example, the hiring manager might ask a brain teaser question about why maintenance hole covers are round.

Interviewer: "Why are manhole covers round?"

Candidate: "I'm not sure there is a specific reason. It could be because they're cheaper to produce, easier to transport, or so they don't fall into the hole. To find the real answer, I'd probably spend some time talking to utility workers to learn about their work environment and thoughts on the question."

Related: How to answer brain teaser interview questions

Job interview

6. Ask to come back to it later

If you're stumped, you can ask to come back to the question later. The interviewer may forget to ask again, and that will allow you to follow up with your answer in your thank you email.

Say something like: "That question has stumped me! Can I think about it and come back to it at the end of our conversation? I want to make sure we can cover as much ground as possible."

Job interview

7. Always be honest

It can be embarrassing to be unable to answer a question, but the worst thing you can do is lie. Chances are the interviewer knows the correct answer, and you lying about your understanding will be a red flag.

Job interview preparation

Example answers for when you can't answer an interview question

These are some sample responses you can review to prepare for interview situations where you don't have a good answer:

Example answer 1

Interviewer: "Do you have any questions for me?"

Candidate: "I did have a few questions before the interview, but I can't recall them at the moment. Would you mind if I send them in a follow-up email after the interview?"

Related: How to respond to "Do you have any questions for me?"

Example answer 2

Interviewer: "When can you start?"

Candidate: "I'm not sure how long my notice period is at my current job, but I'm happy to look at it after the interview and let you know."

Related: How to answer "When can you start?"

Example answer 3

Interviewer: "Can you explain what a binary search algorithm is and how you would implement it in Ruby?"

Candidate: "It's been a while since my university algorithms course, so I can't implement it off the top of my head, but I feel like my personality and skills align well with the company culture and job description."

Coworkers reviewing job applicants

Tips for overcoming not knowing the answer to an interview question

Use these tips to prepare for situations when you don't have the answer:

  • Prepare for common interview questions: An easy way to avoid being in this situation in the first place is to prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Most interviews will ask a similar set of questions, so if you prepare for the most common interview questions, you probably won't even end up in the situation.
  • Practice mock interviews: Conduct mock interviews with your friends, family, or hire a career coach online. Mock interviews improve your interviewing skills, prepare you for different questions, and even improve your ability to manage situations when you don't know the answer.
  • Be honest: Don't pretend to know the answer or redirect the question back to the hiring manager. Be honest about what you know, as it shows the company that you've got positive character traits. It'll also allow you to explain how you'd acquire the knowledge if you needed it.
  • Use confident body language: Sit up straight, make eye contact, and smile. Not only will this help reduce anxiety, but it'll also make you appear more trustworthy and knowledgeable when answering.
  • Repeat or rephrase the question: If you need time to develop your answer, repeat the question or rephrase it back to the interviewer. Repeating the question shows that you're actively listening, ensures you answer as well as you can, and provides you time to think.

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